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[Editorial] The enemy within

June, the “Month of National Protection,” is passing with public and private events to evoke the people’s determination to fight whatever enemy threatens national independence. Media special features around Memorial Day on the 6th and the Korean War anniversary on the 25th reminded Koreans of who they are indebted to for what the Republic of Korea is today and how they should prepare themselves to protect national security.

Yet social and political developments these days have unfortunately turned Koreans’ attention more keenly to the enemy within rather than the enemy without. Social critics are naming “Sin O-jeok,” or the new five bandits, in the manner of poet Kim Ji-ha’s satirical writing during the pro-democracy movement.

Democracy has settled in the republic, at least as far as the essential political freedom and the representative system are concerned, while its operational sophistication still leaves much to be desired. On the other hand, corruption persists, particularly in the upper echelons of the society and politics, prompting President Lee Myung-bak to declare: “The entire nation is rotten.”

Speaking to a workshop of Cabinet ministers, vice ministers and presidential secretaries in the middle of this month, the president made an overview of corruption and injustice in Korea, which he found to be worsening as his administration moves toward its closing in early 2013. Then he enumerated those that are responsible for rendering his design of a just society impossible. The president’s complaint led the conscientious people to pick up five groups.

Leading the list of internal enemies are the policy makers of both the ruling and main opposition parties, who are now blindly competing with a whole range of welfare programs, daring to bankrupt the state finances. As the Grand National Party floor leader promised a 30 percent cut in university tuition over the next three years, his Democratic Party counterpart reconfirmed a 50 percent reduction from the very next semester.

Coming next are the top prosecution and national police leaders, who reached an ambiguous tentative agreement last week after extended wrangling for years over the authority to conduct criminal investigations. President Lee defined the perennial contest between the two law enforcement organizations as a “fight to grab the bigger rice bowl.” With present and former senior prosecutors and police chiefs ceaselessly involved in major corruption scandals, this turf war between the two agencies earned them a place on the list of crooks.

Senior members of the Financial Supervisory Service and some on the Board of Audit and Inspection who turned their eyes away from the improprieties of savings banks in exchange for kickbacks made it into the list for the gravity of their wrongdoings. In a dramatic exposure of the corruption nexus, the former head of the prosecution’s Central Investigation Division, who was directing the probe into the savings banks, was once hired as the counsel for the chairman of Busan Savings Bank shortly after he retired from the prosecution.

The ex-CID chief was offered 300 million won as his initial fee, rising to 900 million won if the Busan bank’s chair stays out of prison. (The contract was later canceled.) We are simply dumbfounded at the level of moral laxity of high prosecutors-and judges-turned lawyers, who mostly do not hesitate to use their influence over the offices where they worked before retirement.

The rest of the new “O-jeok” are the owners of the savings banks with their indescribably wicked way of business, preying on small-time depositors, and the executives of big conglomerates who their suppliers and contractors complain of sucking their blood by cutting the prices of parts and services they provide to them.

There can be more entries with comparable public denunciation. The above list reflects the public anger at the abandoning of integrity and responsibility by the major players of society, as revealed by the recent savings bank failures, the disclosure of pervasive corruption surrounding their business and the lukewarm investigation into their executives. President Lee needs to exhibit unrelenting leadership to fasten public discipline beyond just airing his frustration over the present state of affairs. National watch over the enemy within continues with growing intensity.
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